Gotham Diary:
Beaux Arts
17 December 2013

Neil Harris’s Capital Culture is one very solid book. It also has an appropriate subtitle: J Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience. It’s that last bit that caught my attention and induced me to buy the book. The museum experience — you have to be middle-aged or older (and Harris is ten years older than I am) to think of such a thing, to imagine that such an experience really can be reinvented. I wish I’d been a better observer when I was young, but I was too self-absorbed to pay real attention to anything else. So my recollections of the museum experience in the 1960s are dim.

Museums themselves were pretty dim in those days; they didn’t attract attention to themselves. The idea was to showcase the art by providing as little showcase as possible. We recall the noisy exuberance of the Sixties easily enough. What’s harder to recapture is the austerity of everything deemed to be serious. Pleasure was intellectually suspect. I do remember that.

John Walker, director of the National Gallery prior to Carter Brown, wrote to his former teacher, Bernard Berenson, in 1948, about the crowds showing up to see an exhibition of German treasures. “I have almost come to the conclusion that interest in the arts in America is overstimulated.” It’s an astonishingly contemptuous thing to say, now. In 1948, it was conventional mandarin wisdom. “Overstimulated” was a word much used in those days in connection with children who were too wound up to take anything in, who ran around senselessly, crashing into things. It was a byword for “unthinking.” The crowds at the National Gallery were too enthusiastic, were having too good a time. That Walker disliked this did not make him mean-spirited; he simply cherished the hushed serenity of understated grandeur that is still the reverberant note on the West Building’s main floor. John Walker rarely appeared in public, one imagines, not wearing a suit and a tie.

How quickly things change: not ten years after Walker’s retirement, President Jimmy Carter showed up for a special viewing of the great Treasures of Tutankhamen show wearing a sweater and an open shirt.

Museums were not dim in the old days because they were neglected. But their austerity — their chilly, quiet, underlighted institutional ostentation — was completely out of fashion. The great museums weren’t what they had been intended to be: timeless. Perhaps their timelessness was simply incompatible with youthfulness. This did not go untouched by our cultural revolution. By the end of the Sixties, both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art were in the hands of young men, neither yet forty: Thomas Hoving and J Carter Brown. Sometimes working together, mostly in earnest competition, they gave us the blockbuster exhibition, bigger museum shops, and, above all, welcoming (if noisier) museums. Hoving and Brown put an end to austerity wherever it was not inherently stylish. Brown, at heart a very gifted broker, kept his job much longer than did the restless and mercurial Hoving, but he was no less a showman.

Even when buildings in the beaux-arts style of the West Building were erected, their degree of ornament was curtailed by puritanical modernism, which held that, whatever the work of art, it must be seen without distraction. There ought to be, ideally, nothing else to look at. Decades of this proved to be enervating. Almost all the older paintings in any museum were intended to adorn walls in relatively opulent rooms, and they were very much part of the furniture. Modernism, wrenching them out of context, almost wrenched the life out of them. Today, it is fashionable to restore some of the contextual opulence by suggestive lighting, an old trick in retailing. Sometimes the suggestiveness is a little loud, and you wonder where the pricetag is. This is an unwelcome distraction. Knowing that you cannot take this home is one of the great pleasures of visiting a museum. (Ah me, I am an old man.)

Whether or not the Frick Collection is timeless, time has come to a full stop there — except, sadly, in connection with a few lampshades that are in dire need of replacement. The idea, at the Frick, is to see things as the collector saw them, and to enjoy them in his very fine mansion. (That’s why the shabby lampshades have to go!) You need not pretend that you live there to appreciate how much richness the paintings and other artworks draw from their surroundings. Bellini’s absolutely timeless St Francis is honored, not only by the company it keeps, but by the wood-paneled wall behind it.


So, what have I learned from Capital Culture? (I’m not done with it yet.) That the Smithsonian is a bewildering Institution, certainly. Smithsonian Secretary (director) Dillon Ripley gets two chapters in Harris’s book. It’s an intelligent way to put Carter Brown’s career in relief, because Ripley went about things very differently. Both men were Ascendancy WASPs — “You’re just visiting” — but if Ripley affected, in the manner of FDR, to be a man for the people, if not quite of them, Brown was a chic patrician. Curiously (or maybe not), Ripley was the one who persistently invited unwanted Congressional inquiries, while the wheels of Brown’s triumphal chariot were optimally oiled. Ripley was riotous sprawl; Brown, elegant containment. Each of them headed the right museum.

Chapter Eight, “Trouble in Paradise: The Light That Failed,” is a testament to Brown’s negative capability. In 1977, Washington Post art critic Paul Richard wrote about the cleaning of an alleged Rembrandt, The Mill, in a way that upset Paul Mellon, son of the National Gallery of Art’s prime mover and himself not only a trustee but also President of the museum. Six months later, Mellon interfered in  museum operations by calling a halt to all conservation work. Over the summer of 1978, a battle raged between rival camps of conservators, with the “English” or “European” connoisseurs vilifying the American technicians installed at the National Gallery. Aside from the embarrassed staffers, who could rightly complain of kangaroo-court treatment, the museum official who stood up for them and who took the blows was Charles Parkhurst, the Assistant Director, not Carter Brown.

In effect, during the coming firestorm Brown largely absented himself and let Parkhurst take on the role of mediating between the staff and the Gallery president. By now, almost ten years into the director’s job, Brown may well have realized the potential costs to his staff of Mellon’s decision to call a moratorium on conservation. But he was always deferential toward his superiors, and the role Mellon played in the Gallery made him even more indispensable to its continued success than Brown himself.

So far, that’s the worst that I’ve read about Brown. I would want to know more before passing judgment.